Hapa-Palooza, a celebration of mixed roots arts and ideas
By the time Anna Ling Kaye was twenty, she had lived in ten different cities in eight different countries and had travelled through many more—mostly in Asia. Her father, a New York Jew, is a journalist, hence the travel. She was raised speaking mostly English but learned mandarin early from her mother, who is originally from Taiwan. Language was, she says, the tools she used to anchor herself in her dual cultures. “Having Chinese and English gave me access to mythology, culture, religion, contemporary media and of course conversation,” she says, “and these continue to be the most important tools I have for connecting to my cultures.”
As she got older, Anna came to realize that her physical profile was different from her mostly-Asian peers, something she could justify by the foreign passport she held. When she began to attend university in North America, though, she realized that she wasn’t going to ‘fit in’ there either. For want of a better pigeonhole, most people assumed she was Hawaiian. At university she dabbled in a number of cultural clubs including the Asian American club, the South Asian club, and hung out at the Hillel Center, but none of those organizations resonated with her sense of identity.
She can, she says, recall clearly the pivotal moment when she realized that there is a demographic that she does fit into: “There was the 1993 Time Magazine cover, which featured a computer-generated composite of the many groups that formed the American public at the time. It was the first time I really ‘saw’ another blended face, and recognized it as one not so different from my own.” Despite her feeling of finally belonging to an identifiable demographic, though, she retained a sense of disbelief that faces like hers would ever become the norm.
Then in 2006 she moved to Vancouver. It was a revelation. “I realized the mixed demographic had critical mass, and more importantly, cultural capital. I remember the writer Wayde Compton asking whether I wrote about my duality, and this being one of the first times I realized that the mixed experience could be approached in writing. I was so used to reading of people within singular cultures.”
In early 2011, Anna, who by then was a member of the Asian Canadian Writer’s Workshop, attended Todd Wong’s annual Gung Haggis Fat Choy dinner, which featured a Hapa-theme that year. Patrick Gallagher, Jenna Chow and Tetsuro Shigematsu (a “Hapa-papa” she calls him) were emceeing, and 15-year-old Squamish fiddle player Jocelyn Petite was performing. Jeff Chiba Stearns had been invited to screen his documentary One Big Hapa Family. There was, she recalls, “a strong density of hapas. There was haggis and plum wine. One thing led to another and by the end of the evening we were all certain that the time for a Canadian Hapa arts festival had come.” It was Tetsuro Shigematsu, she says, who came up with a name for the Festival—Hapa-Palooza.
The timing for a festival of mixed race art and culture couldn’t have been better. The City of Vancouver was taking applications for its 125th anniversary celebrations, and Anna felt their concept was perfect for this city of diversity, acceptance and hybridity. Within a matter of weeks an application was thrown together and accepted by the grant committee. Out of the blue, Anna found herself Artistic Director of what the committee sub-titled A Celebration of Mixed Roots Arts and Ideas.
When Hapa-Palooza launches on September 7th, it will mark the culmination of months of planning and organizing, fueled by enthusiasm on the part of the organizers, performers and volunteers who are excited to be part of this ground-breaking event.
As she works at finalizing the lineup and getting details nailed down, Anne is gratified at the level of interest the festival is garnering, including a short mention in the New York Times. “The biggest challenge is harnessing the tremendous interest and goodwill coming towards the festival, and finding roles that best fit people’s interests and passion. It’s also been a fun and interesting challenge to pull together an incredibly diverse pool of organizing and artistic talent into a set of cohesive events—but that is always the hapa challenge!”
In Her Own Words
Anna Ling Kaya – Interview
Why do you think we need a festival that celebrates the hapa reality?
Mixed youth is the fastest-growing demographic in Vancouver, and probably North America. It is important that this generation sees itself not as an anomaly or oddity, but rather a norm of modern society. People of mixed heritage can no longer be nudged towards the box marked “other” in terms of defining their cultural or racial profiles, or being forced to choose one dimension or another of their heritage. There must be permission for hybridity and self-definition, indeed celebration. To embrace the culture of hapa reality, as you call it, it’s important to celebrate it. A big part of that celebration is identifying people who are hapa, whether it’s US president Barack Obama, or musician Norah Jones, or in the case of our local Vancouver festival, a wide roster of talented artists such as writer Fred Wah, film-maker Jeff Chiba Stearns, Diva Drummer Navaro Franco or youth talent such as the group Chibi Taiko. We’re also hoping to show that the tension or confusion that might come with being of a mixed heritage can bear incredible fruit as an artist learns to embrace his or her full self.
What do you hope to achieve with Hapa-palooza?
Hapa-palooza Festival’s mandate is to support the building of a community that embraces and celebrates hybrid heritage, promote discussion and resources for discussion of hybrid identity, and provide positive role models for hapa youth. Most importantly, we want to have a fun, inclusive, artistically diverse, family-forward festival.
Do you have any criteria for picking artists for inclusion in the festival?
Since we are part of a celebration of Vancouver’s 125th anniversary, we wanted to showcase local artists who identify as being of mixed heritage or in a mixed family for this festival. We also wanted to have talent from the artistic realms of the written and spoken word, film and visual art, dance and music, as well as a dedicated youth stage.
You have young children yourself now, how you go about imparting their duality to them?
We are a household that celebrates Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Moon Festival and Chanukah, amongst other holidays. The children like to count in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, with Spanish thrown into the mix. We’ve also taken the children travelling to visit relatives in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US, and are lucky to have all four grandparents still with us, so we try to have the children spend good amounts of time with them. We try to foster positive associations with their cultures. For example, my daughter loves going to Cantonese opera with her grandmother, and also loves playing word games with her Caucasian grandfather.
But a big part of what we are working on is not so much a sense of duality as a sense of respect towards origins. We’d like the children to be connected to their ancestors and the places their ancestors are from. More importantly, we are trying to raise children to be part of a generation that is curious and respectful of the heritage of the people around them, be their origins in aboriginal, First Nations, African, Asian, European or American cultures.
My four-year-old asked me the other day: “Mom, am I white?” My children have three Chinese grandparents, each from a different dialect zone (Guangzhou, Chauzhou and Taiwan). And they have one Jewish-American grandparent. So I asked her, “what do you think?” She thought about it for a bit, and decided “daddy is Chinese and you are white, so I guess I’m Chinese.” I have a feeling this isn’t the last time the subject will come up, and I’m glad for that. I’m a big believer in self-definition.
One of my biggest takeaways was from a conversation with Delhi2Dublin musician Tarun Nayar, who is Indian and Caucasian. I asked him if he identified more with one aspect of his heritage than the other. “I don’t look at myself as part-brown and part-white,” he told me. “I’m whole.” This concept of mixed wholeness made a big impression on me. The desire to share that concept is a big part of what drives me to move this festival forward.